Canada’s fossilized G20 protesters

Where were the opponents to Canada's fossil fuel subsidies?

It’s a good thing for the G20 protesters that the focus has gone all meta and shifted to the realm of civil rights, including the questionable five-metre rule and the behaviour of the police. Because if the attention was on the protesters themselves and their actual agenda, they’d have a lot to answer for.

No, I’m not here to rehash the condemnation of the Black Bloc types who smashed up the city and torched police cars. I’m actually more interested in the ones who were there for the peaceable reason of desiring to influence public policy. What sort of policies were they opposed to? Which ones did they support? It’s surprisingly hard to say. I’ve been trolling through the stories in the aftermath of the summit, and it would appear that most of the protesters had no real clue either.

When a firm agenda was expressed, it tended to be absurdly general: “People not profits.” “Stop the G20”. “Justice Now.” “Animal Rights are Human Rights.” “Free Palestine.” You get the picture. Even the supporters and organizers of the protests seemed less than pleased with the discordant messaging. At one point, in a rally and march held the day after all of the major arrests (on June 28), the Globe’s Anna Mehler Paperny tweeted “The telling moment when Rebick shouts ‘what do we want?’ and everyone shouts something different. (They settle on ‘justice’)”.

Why am I bringing this up, so late to the party? Because the absence of any coherent and informed protest agenda has allowed a great scandal to pass virtually unnoticed. Almost all of the media post-G20 analysis (including that of our own Geddes and Coyne) have zeroed in on Harper’s success in avoiding a bank tax and a getting general commitment to fiscal austerity as the main policy outcome of the G20, along with a tepid endorsement of the $5 billion for maternal health.

Yet the biggest news out of the summit was that Canada successfully resisted pressure (from the U.S., among others) to stop subsidizing fossil fuel production. In a short story published in today’s Citizen, Mike de Souza reports how the Harper government managed to protect “several incentive and subsidy programs for fossil fuels, despite making a G20 pledge to phase them out, according to a leaked document from last month’s conference in Toronto.”  This flies in the face of a Reuters news story that ran during the summit, which claimed that G20 leaders had made a firm pledge to phase out fossil fuel subsidies, following on an earlier G20 commitment made in Pittsburgh last September.

Ok, so how were the protesters supposed to know? After all, the leaked document was an annex, “circulated at the summit” but apparently not made public, in which Canada stated its intention to only review its current subsidies on an ongoing basis. Surely the protesters can’t be blamed for not protesting something they didn’t know about.

Except they could have. Because the same day that Reuters was reporting that the G20 leaders had committed to firm medium-term timelines for phasing out the subsidies, Mike Blanchfield and Heather Scoffield of CP were reporting the exact opposite: “Prime Minister Stephen Harper rejected advice from his officials to eliminate tax incentives for the oil patch on a weekend that saw the world’s most powerful leaders disdain fresh attempts to combat climate change in favour of fighting deepening deficits,” they wrote.

Here’s the really nasty business:

The Department of Finance recommended over the spring that Harper lead by example and get rid of tax incentives that encourage oil and gas production. But documents obtained by The Canadian Press, to be released in conjunction with the final G20 communique on Sunday, show the prime minister opted instead to reiterate actions taken in the past rather than volunteer any additional gestures.

According to the documents, the Canadian “action plan” on fossil fuels consists mainly of phasing out accelerated capital cost allowances for oil sands production — a measure that was first announced a few years ago and put on a faster track in the 2010 budget. “The accelerated CCA for oil sands projects will be phased out over the 2011-2015 period,” says the Canadian plan.

The phase out of the accelerated capital cost allowance was first announced in the 2007 budget and “could be cited as a current action helping to fulfill that commitment,” says a March memorandum prepared for Finance Minister Jim Flaherty.

This is completely evil on Canada’s part — not just doing the wrong thing, but doing the opposite of the right thing. And it was out there, on the national newswire, while the summit was still going on, and the day before Judy Rebick led the crowd in a game of “let’s play ‘what do we want’”.

Meanwhile, did this specific issue ever get raised by any of the protesters,  before, during, or after the summit? I certainly didn’t hear about it — all I heard about was the three-ring circus, and the various side-issues and non-issues that were being raised.

I fully expect that most people will do their usual shtick of blaming the mainstream media. But the mainstream media did its job.  Wouldn’t it be amazing if the protesters paid any attention at all to the actual agenda of these meetings, and took an interest in actual the positions being adopted by the government of Canada?

But that’s too hard. Blaming the cops and “Reclaiming the Streets” is so much more fun.